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Political Impact Of Nawaz Sharif’s Comeback And ‘Pakistan Democratic Movement’

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The All Parties Conference (APC) on Sunday marked a significant development in the Pakistani political scenario. There can be no doubt that the biggest highlight of the show was the speech by Mian Nawaz Sharif, broadcasted from London via video conferencing. Nawaz Sharif’s appearance on national television indicates that although he is thousands of miles away from Pakistan, he is still closely involved in Pakistani politics – much more so as a free man in London than when he was in jail in Pakistan.

In his address, the former prime minister spoke assertively, without any show of ill health or physical difficulty – which were his grounds for bail earlier when he went to London to seek medical treatment. This is a tell-tale sign that Nawaz Sharif is not interested in any public sympathy on the basis of his ailing health. He not only did not bring up his ailing health in his address but also did not feel any compulsion to justify his stay in London. The deal, if any, between the former premier and the establishment which allowed him an exit to London remains a mystery. That he would return to go back to jail is obviously a foolish hope on the part of those who are demanding for him to surrender. One does wonder if there had been a deal at all, and this is obviously an ongoing debate. However, I believe that Nawaz Sharif will soon return at a point of his choosing, though certainly not to go back into captivity.

In his address to the APC, Nawaz Sharif made it abundantly clear that the objective of his movement was not to directly oppose Prime Minster Imran Khan but rather those who brought him into power through political engineering, election irregularities and military tutelage. Nawaz Sharif drove his point home, that Imran Khan was a puppet of the indirect military junta and that the struggle of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (the opposition parties’ coalition) was aimed against the puppeteers (the selectors) not the puppet (the selected).

The point made by Nawaz Sharif, and his stance, must be analysed in greater depth. Observers and researchers of Pakistani politics know that Shehbaz Sharif’s position has been to avoid taking a collision course with the military. This has been the main difference in the political ideology between Shehbaz Sharif and his older brother, even prior to the 1999 military coup d’état led by General Pervez Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif’s renewed attack against the establishment implies significant shifts in the internal politics of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). It is evident that Nawaz Sharif is now truly in control of the PML-N while his younger brother has resumed playing the deputy role that he had before Nawaz Sharif went to jail. This also means that Maryam Nawaz will now be more prominent in the internal party affairs of the PML-N as compared to the earlier half of this year.

Nawaz Sharif made use of the forum to remind the audience of key political antagonisms between the previous PML-N government (2013-2018) and the establishment. Memories of “Dawn leaks” were made fresh – an incident which forced Nawaz Sharif to dismiss his special assistant to the prime minister (SAPM) for Foreign Affairs Syed Tariq Fatemi. A reference was also made to the infamous tweet of former director-general of Inter-Services Public Relations (DGISPR) Major-General Asif Ghafoor (“Notification on Dawn Leak is incomplete and not in line with recommendations by the Inquiry Board. Notification is rejected.”). In any other normal country, such audacity by a military or civil services officer would have been punished as high insubordination. Nawaz Sharif also brought up the corruption scandal of Lieutenant-General (retired) Asim Saleem Bajwa, the current SAPM on Information and Broadcasting, who was reported to own 133 Papa John’s Pizza restaurants in the United States of America and United Arab Emirates. Nawaz Sharif made a direct allegation on Lt-General (r) Bajwa for his role in collapsing the former PML-N led government in the Balochistan Provincial Assembly, while he was also the Commander Southern Command and XII corps in-charge of Balochistan province.

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The “Pakistan Democratic Movement” seems to be a great spectacle of opposition unity. As I have previously argued in an article titled “Opposition Has No One But Itself To Blame For Political Disarray” published by Naya Daur, “If one carefully and impartially examines the actions of the PPP and PML-N from the present day back to the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister in 2017, it is apparent that the opposition in Pakistan has no one but itself to blame for its current state of affairs.”

I would like to remind observers of Pakistani politics that the Pakistan Peoples Party never supported the PML-N between the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif and the outcome of the 2018 general elections. In fact, Asif Ali Zardari even participated in an anti-PML-N rally organised by Dr. Tahir ul Qadri on 17 January 2018, where he shared the same platform with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), demanding the dissolution of the then PML-N government which was in power prior to the July 2018 general election. One would recall that Zardari’s statement that “this Mujibur Rahman of Jati Umra (Nawaz Sharif) is a threat to Pakistan.” Asif Ali Zardari probably now regrets his participation in Dr Tahir ul Qadri’s rally, though it’s too late.

Today it seems that the PML-N and the PPP are ready to form a coalition to overthrow Imran Khan’s government. However, one must remember that this could probably be another temporary alliance as politicians in Pakistan have exhibited that they never learn from history.  It has been an old habit of the Pakistani civilian political elite to immediately ditch their commitments towards democracy and consensus on the rules of the game whenever they see opportunities for short-term parochialistic political gains. If this remains the mindset of the Pakistani civilian political elite, they will never be able transform their configuration from disunity to consensual unity.

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In a paper titled, “The Elite Variable in Democratic Transitions and Breakdowns” published in the American Sociological Review, political sociologist John Higley and Michael Burton assert that “Stable democratic regimes depend heavily on the ‘consensual unity’ of national elites. So long as elites remain disunified, political regimes are unstable, a condition which makes democratic transitions and democratic breakdowns merely temporary oscillations in the forms unstable regimes take(1989). Consensual unity in this context refers to a national elite’s consensus on the basic democratic norms and rules of the game. For example, the Labour and Conservative parties in the United Kingdom and the Republicans and Democrats in the United States, while strongly disagreeing on various interests, essentially agree on the nature of the polity (market, constitution, rights and liberties). Likewise, the civilian political elite in India has formulated a consensus on the rules of the game regardless of political ideology. This is unlike the situation in Pakistan where there is an absence of a consensual unity among the elites as such; civilian political elite disunity is a causal mechanism of regime oscillations in Pakistan.

Based on the theory of Higley and Burton (1989), if regime transitions are not preceded or accompanied by elite transformations, regardless of the nature of regime transition (be it a democratic transition or breakdown), such a type of regime transition should always be regarded as strictly temporary. Pakistan has never experienced any regime transition preceded by a genuine elite transformation. This explains why Pakistan’s political history is replete with regime oscillations between military dictatorships and civilian rule. A polity with a disunified elite creates a situation of deep-rooted insecurities where elites are compelled to take extreme measures to protect their political interest; this may include extra-judicial activities (Higley and Burton 1989). In Pakistan, the military takes advantage of the insecurities and rivalry of the disunified civilian political elites to penetrate into domestic politics by acting as the final arbiter – and in doing so, creates further disunity of the Pakistani civilian political elite class. This only adds to pre-existing social cleavages of ethnicity, tribe, class, caste, language, province and sectarianism.

The opposition must realise that the rise of the current regime in Pakistan is a result of their own past mistakes and failure to remain committed to the democratic ideals which Benazir Bhutto paid for with her martyrdom. I hope that the Pakistani civilian political elite will not cause her sacrifices to go in vain. Pakistan will only be able to achieve regime stability and a real democratic transition if its civilian political elite is able to reach a sustainable consensus on the core democratic norms and rules of the game. Otherwise, the country will continue to experience authoritarianism and regime oscillations.

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Naya Daur